An unknown history of refugees

Today, when we consider refugees and Syria and Iran, we may picture people traveling to Europe to escape from persecution. But in the not-too-distant past, the reverse was true: during World War Two, Syria provided refuge for people from Eastern Europe and the Balkans as they were escaping Nazi and Soviet occupation.

In the 1940s, Aleppo was an ‘ancient and thriving metropolitan’ centre and boasted a thriving hub of emigres. It was also the host of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

Operated by a network known as the MERRA, the camps were operated by national governments, military officials, and domestic and international aid organisations from around the world. The network issued reports about the living conditions of the refugee camps to improve them. The reported living conditions are not dissimilar to what refugees face today.

There were few opportunities to leave the camp, but some occasional visits were permitted under the supervision of camp officials. On these trips, refugees in the Aleppo camp often went to the town to visit shops or watch a film at the local cinema.

In the Aleppo camp, there was a room reserved for women to make macaroni with the flour they received from camp officials. Although refugees were encouraged to work, it was not compulsory. Refugees could work as cooks, cleaners, and cobblers.

The majority of the people from Europe stayed until the war was over then returned to their home countries – many stayed for at least a couple of years. People from Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, and Yugoslavia were the main beneficiaries of refuge in Syria.

In the same period, Iran accommodated over 116,000 Polish refugees during World War Two. Iran was widely regarded as the first country the refugees had experienced since the beginning of the war that had not been ruined by war, hunger, and disease.

Schools were set up to teach the thousands of orphans the Polish language. In some schools, Persian was taught too, alongside both Polish and Iranian history and geography.

In March 1942, over 43,000 refugees arrived in Bandar Pahlavi, a port in the north of the country. 2000 tents had hastily been erected by the Iranian army to accommodate the mass arrival.

There are several testimonies of Iranian people throwing cookies and sweets onto trucks that were transporting Polish refugees from Anzali to Tehran. Writer Ryszard Antolak even noted that ‘The deepest imprint of the Polish sojourn in Iran can be found in the memoirs and narratives of those who lived through it. The debt and gratitude felt by the exiles towards their host country echoes warmly throughout all literature. The kindness and sympathy of the ordinary Iranian population towards the Poles is everywhere spoken of.’

There are more accounts of a welcoming Iran: 15-year-old Emil Landau, a Jewish boy from Warsaw, recorded the moment he arrived. He describes how, ‘everything seems good and beautiful, everything smiles together with the Persians, and with the Indian soldiers who gaze at the arrivers with pity. After we are on shore everyone hugs everyone.’ 

Around 14.5 million German-speakers lost their homes in formerly German lands and Eastern Europe alone. After the war, international legal arrangements were created to provide security for Europeans who had escaped their homes and received refuge in other countries. In the words of Adiguzel, ‘the most important of those arrangements is the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which was approved at the United Nations in 1951 and is still in force. This convention, which initially provided legal assurance only to European refugees, started to be implemented for everyone after 1967.’

And today, as the number of people fleeing conflict is at the highest number since World War Two, the treatment of refugees has never been so important. Perhaps an unexpected history, but Syria and Iran accommodated many Europeans fleeing conflict. Europe should ‘return the favour’ and accommodate the people who accommodated us less than 100 years ago.



Image: Julie Ricard on Unsplash.

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